Taking the road less traveled: building upon lessons from CPWF

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As the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) comes to an end and is fully integrated into the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), it is appropriate to take stock and reflect on its ten-year legacy. For me, it is also a time to reflect on the personal transformation that I have undergone in my perceptions and views of CPWF since becoming familiar with the program and its activities.

Consultation with Mekong district officials where CPWF asked what gaps exist between hydropower policy and practice, and what kinds of mechanisms could be created to bridge this gap. Photo: CPWF on Flickr

My time working in the Mekong coincided with planning for the second phase of the CPWF, which focused on the development of what were termed ‘Basin Development Challenges’. In the discourse that defined the Mekong Basin Development Challenge, the focus shifted from agrarian-centric to one of large infrastructure development within the water sector. A distinct emphasis was placed on the hydropower sector that dominated and continues to dominate the regional development agendas of several countries in the Greater Mekong sub-region.

As a consummate agriculturalist with a high level of naivety, I questioned whether this was the role of CGIAR to be engaging in an arena that was politically sensitive and where we had very little experience. Needless to say, I recused myself from any further involvement in CPWF once the development challenge for the Mekong was finalized and was a skeptic as to whether anything would materialize from it.

The aforementioned views were brought into sharp focus when I took over the role of Director of WLE and turned towards the full integration of CPWF into WLE. Over the past 12 months, I have had the good fortune to visit most of the river basins (except for the Andes) in which CPWF has operated and met with dedicated researchers, partners from outside of CGIAR, basin leaders and beneficiaries of the outputs that have emerged from the research effort.

Let me give some examples:

  • I have had the privilege of speaking to farmers in Southern Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, who have directly benefited from the innovation platform that contributed to increasing the price of goats from $6/head to $50/head and precipitated a complete change in behavior of how common grazing resources are managed;
  • I have discussed with researchers about the development of a tool called TAGMI that assists decision makers to make strategic investments in small-scale agricultural water management interventions in the Volta;
  • In Bangladesh, I was inspired by how three CGIAR Centers (IWMI, WorldFish, and IRRI) are working on a shared vision to improve the productivity of the polder systems in Bangladesh through better water management along with demonstrating the benefits of ‘miniaturizations’ of polders into more manageable units. The shared focus on a local development challenge has caught the eye of development partners and national government agencies alike;
  • Back in the Mekong, I have been impressed by the work of the projects in charting out new territory in the water, food and energy nexus and developing partnerships with a whole new range of actors, including the private sector, when many said it was too risky! The great work to map out hydropower in the region and the work by IWMI in Vietnam and Laos to improve the livelihoods of communities affected by resettlement through crop diversification are only a few examples of what has been achieved by CPWF and its partners.

Clearly my opinions of the CPWF have changed as I have come to understand the program and become familiar with what it was attempting to achieve.  The concept of CPWF was one that was founded on a need to change the way we do research and to move towards an inclusive approach to research-for-development that results in outcomes and impact.

CPWF’s main objectives were always two-fold and interlaced. First, it was to generate practical knowledge to improve water and food productivity that would yield tangible development outcomes for the poor and improve how water is managed. The second was to explore new ways of doing research that were more effective in generating development outcomes and engaging with partners. These objectives have been more than adequately achieved by CPWF.

These overall objectives are, in part, the pillars on which the 16 CGIAR Research Programs (particularly WLE) have been modelled. Whilst CPWF was a learning experiment for CGIAR, we can benefit and learn from the approaches that formed the basis of the program.

So where to from here?

There are several elements within the CPWF portfolio of activities that have the potential to move from research outputs to outcomes and impacts. Once again, let me elaborate through some examples:

  • The TAGMI decision making tool developed to assist decision makers in identifying appropriate agricultural water management options will be used in the Volta Focal Region;
  • The Mekong Focal Region Program and its coordination is a construct of the previous Mekong basin development challenge program, which clearly demonstrated the success of a different approach to conducting research-for-development. Further, the work on constructed wetlands and natural built infrastructure, developed in part under CPWF, is being supported by WLE;
  • There are opportunities to carry forward the successful polder and wetlands work undertaken in the Ganges delta into the Ganges Focal Region;
  • In the Nile the work undertaken within CPWF on sustainable land management in Ethiopia will form elements of future initiatives in the Nile Focal Region;
  • The successful work undertaken in Latin America on benefit sharing mechanisms will be invaluable in cross-basin learning, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. Further a concerted effort will be made to continue to support the excellent work carried out in the Cañete Basin.

These few examples demonstrate the intent of WLE to build upon the success of CPWF and its partners. In reference to the latter, CPWF has left WLE with an invaluable legacy, namely the many partnerships that it has forged.  It will be incumbent on WLE to continue to build on this legacy and ensure that it stays true to the discourse and purpose of research-for-development.

Finally to all those that contributed to the success of CPWF I would like to thank you for all your efforts and for showing that there is a different way of doing business that is inclusive and development-focused. It has been a learning experience for all of us, particularly for me. As we embark on a journey with the full integration of CPWF into WLE, let us not neglect what we have learnt and build upon these lessons to make sure our research is relevant, inclusive and robust.

I welcome comments from all; and particularly encourage those who have been involved in CPWF to give their reflections in the comments section below.

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